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The New, Old Kingdom Series

In January 2020 Bonnier Books UK acquired the UK rights to Garth Nix’s backlist of titles, including the Old Kingdom series and with much excitement, a new Old Kingdom novel: Terciel and Elinor. The Old Kingdom books have been re-issued throughout 2020 in a new spectacular design, making them a coveted collection for many Garth Nix fans, old and new alike. Sophie McDonnell, the designer, and Gavin Reece, the illustrator, made time to answer some questions about the latest design.

Sophie McDonnell, the designer:

Why did Bonnier Books UK want to acquire the publishing rights of Garth Nix's backlist as well as his forthcoming new Old Kingdom novel?

We all know just how loved Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series is across the world and I think Hot Key Books (our Teen and YA imprint) realised that this was a very exciting opportunity to introduce not only existing Garth Nix fans but new ones also to all of Garth’s brilliant stories, both old and new!

What do you enjoy most about Garth Nix's Old Kingdom novels? What excites you about the new novel?

Having never actually read Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom novels until I took on the re-jacketing project I think the initial thing that really drew me in was the focus on strong female characters. That always has and always will be a plus for me and I think it’s really exciting that we are seeing more and more female-led fantasy novels out there! I also really enjoyed looking through fan art of the series in my research stages, there’s so much wonderful artwork out there created purely out of love for the Old Kingdom series, which I think speaks to Garth’s ability to create these fully immersive fantastical worlds. I think what excites me most about Terciel & Elinor is that it’s been five years since the last book (Goldenhand) was released in the Old Kingdom series. That’s a long time to build up excitement and anticipation…so I’m just really excited to see how the fans, both old and new, react to it being published!

In the process of re-jacketing the novels, why did you decide to use illustrations of the main characters?

In our research at the beginning stages of the project we looked through all the (many) jackets that have existed and currently do exist for the Old Kingdom series, and we soon realised it would be very difficult to do something that hasn’t already been done. So after many brainstorms and potential routes being pitched/explored, we came to the conclusion that the strongest approach was focusing on the main characters of each book. This was an approach that had already been used previously, but we decided to incorporate the main characters with the iconic charter mark symbol (used on the original covers) to help move the concept on. The initial concept for Sabriel was actually created by both myself and my colleague Alexandra Allden (who has since left Bonnier Books UK). Once we had the initial concept down, I carried it on through to the remaining books in the series, as well as creating new branding for Garth etc.

The charter marks have always been an iconic part of the book design (and of course central to the story). How have you continued to use the charter marks in the new design? What changes, if any, have you made?

We always knew early on in the concept stages that the charter marks were something we were keen on including in our re-jacketed designs. As you said they are an iconic and very recognisable aspect of the original book cover designs, so our choice to use them on our covers was very intentional. We wanted to merge ‘old’ with ‘new’, which is why we have used the same symbol shapes but given them a new calligraphic, Japanese brush style. Of course, another important aspect of the symbols for our covers is that they bring in this source of intense colour to an otherwise greyscale jacket, which really helps the design to grab the readers and buyers attention, not only visually but also as a marker that these are Old Kingdom novels…not to mention it meant I could use all the foil colours which has been very fun.

The jackets are tactile, the embossed writing and the glow of the charter marks are a visual delight. Consequently the books look great on display. What made it possible to add these features to the book design?

High spec books like these are always an absolute delight to work on for designers, creating the actual artwork of the book is only half of the design journey for us! Books are tactile objects and we want readers to engage with them and enjoy engaging with them as much as possible, so we use finishes – such as emboss and foil – to try and heighten this experience. For me, a book cover is a living piece of art to be handled, enjoyed and to help tell the story within in visual terms. In terms of what made it possible to add these features, we are quite regularly able to use finishes such as foil and emboss to aid the overall cover design. It did also help that Garth is a very reputable name so thankfully our design budget was slightly bigger than normal!

Inside the books the charter marks at the start of the chapters seem to have changed in the new editions. What have you changed and why?

Having created a new external look we also wanted the internals to reflect our new design. It may seem like a small detail but having the books as a cohesively designed package was very important to us, so we used the symbols created by Gavin for the covers and made them greyscale so that they could sit at the start of each chapter.

The folded flaps of the book jacket is another great addition. This has brought more elements of the stories to the forefront: the Abhorsen's set of bells and the map of the Old Kingdom, accompanied by appropriate text from each book. At the back of the book there appears a treatise on charter magic and free magic. Why did you decide to enhance these features using the fold flaps?

We knew that we wanted this re-jacketed look to generate excitement and love from both existing and new fans so I think a massive influence for us was – what more can we give the readers? As I mentioned before there is already so much gorgeous fan art that exists relating to the Old Kingdom world, so we took inspiration from that and decided to have Gavin illustrate the Abhorsen bells to help immerse readers even further in this fantasy world by bringing to life aspects of it other than the characters/charter marks. The same goes for the essay on charter and free magic in the back, it was just another way we could add to the readers’ experience. It’s something that new readers may miss the significance of at first glance, but when they go back to read again (as I’m sure many of them will) it’s another little discovery for them to make to, again, help bring the Old Kingdom world to life. As we published the first five books straight into paperback we knew that we would be limited on actual space so, as a workaround, we decided to add flaps (similar to what you get with Hardback covers) which enabled us to add all of the gorgeous extra artwork and just make the overall package look and feel as special as it is.

Overall, what do you think the new illustration and design bring to this collection?

I think the new illustration and design has helped re-spark readers’ love and interest in this series. As I’ve mentioned before, the Old Kingdom series has been around for a long time and has seen many gorgeous cover iterations. Ours is just the latest in this long line and I hope that both old and new fans will fall in love with the new illustrations and design as much as I have.

What reactions and responses have you had so far to the new design from within the industry and from readers?

From what I’ve seen the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive! You really can’t go wrong with a bit of colourful foil…I’ve seen both old and new fans comment their love for the new design of the series which has been really lovely to see. I don’t think we could have picked a better illustrator than Gavin if we tried, he really has just captured the exact essence of each character perfectly. Of course there are some who prefer the original covers, but art and design is subjective so as long as people have opinions we’ve done our jobs right! I’ve even seen some people mention that they want to re-buy the entire series just to own this new look! It’s really very humbling to see people genuinely excited over and appreciating all the hard work that has gone into creating these covers.

Finally, what was creatively your most satisfying and proudest moment?

I think for me personally the most satisfying moment with any book design project is seeing the final printed copy. So many hours go into creating each book – from initial concepts, to finding and choosing illustrators, to art directing rough artwork through to final art, to type designing the back cover etc. – so seeing that all come to fruition is always a very satisfying moment for me. Proudest moment would probably be seeing the book out in the wild. I don’t think I’ll ever find it normal seeing a piece of art I helped create sitting on a Waterstones shelf or being read by a commuter on the District line. So surreal!

Gavin Reece, the illustrator:

The title of each book strongly identifies with the main female character.

Yes , the focus of each cover was a strong and dynamic depiction of the main female in each story.

What was involved in the process of illustrating these characters?

The initial process was pretty much standard. I’d just completed a cover for Midnight's Twins for a different author but with the same design team. Everyone seemed happy with that and I’d really enjoyed doing it. Young Adult fantasy is a new area for me, so it's always a little nerve-racking the first time around. So from that, I was commissioned for Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom. We started with Sabriel, I received a brief and character description and some relevant excerpts from the book, then I scuttle off and come up with a few rough sketches. After everyone's agreed on the direction then it's simply a matter of working up the chosen sketch.

With all the Garth Nix covers we wanted to keep them quite loose and retain some of the qualities of my initial sketches. In fact, although it’s not that obvious, I kept the original sketch layout visible in each of the covers, I would normally draw over my sketch and then get rid of it in the finished artwork.

How did you know when each was finished?

How did I know each was finished is a good question - the honest answer would be when the client is screaming for the artwork as the deadline is looming :) I’m a terrible tinkerer, I’ll always think there is just one more little thing that I can improve on. So it was great to have the designer, Sophie, who had clear ideas of what she wanted from me.

With Sabriel for instance, my first version of her was considered too polished, so that was a really useful lesson and which led to me relying on my initial drawings a lot more.

Which elements of the characters or specific character are you particularly pleased with?

As to what I’m most pleased with, that's hard for me to say as it feels like blowing my own trumpet - I’m pleased with bits from all of them and of course there are areas in all the covers I feel I could have done a bit of a better job with. As with all my work, I just hope I did a good job; fulfilled the brief and created images that give an idea of the qualities of each character.

I had great fun illustrating the characters for each cover - I’ve always thought of all the figures I draw as real characters and find myself creating little back stories for them as I’m going, so it was lovely to work with such strong, defined characters as Sabriel, Lireal etc.

There is a fantastic symmetry between the charter marks and the characters on the jackets.

You're the first to comment on the symmetry between the symbols and characters, and to be honest it never crossed my mind before. I’d love to tell you how I meticulously planned each image - always being aware to maintain the delicate balance between symbol and character, but I’m really not that clever - mostly I sketched out a bunch of poses for the characters, chose the one I liked best then it was trial and error to make them work with the symbol designs. Of course, I was working within the template of the overall cover design , so I knew where the author name and title were going, but there was still a lot of moving of arms, swords, bells and manipulating the symbol shapes themselves to get it all working well together.

Overall, what do you think the new illustration and design bring to this collection?

Hopefully the new designs give the books a really strong and contemporary look and my illustrations give a hint of the dynamic, fascinating female characters within.

What reactions and responses have you had so far to the new design from within the industry and from readers?

I think the reaction has, as far as I’m aware, been very positive. Social media's response seems to have been very nice. And it's certainly helped open up areas of work that are relatively new to me. So coupled with how much I’ve enjoyed doing the work, it’s been a very good experience all round.

Finally, what was creatively your most satisfying and proudest moment?

My proudest moment? Blimey - I've been doing this a long time (as the selfie clearly shows). I think I’m proudest of still being around and having people still think I’m worth hiring. Creatively it's the same answer - still finding what I do interesting, challenging and above all fun.

Interview by Simon Barrett

A huge thank you to Molly Holt, Bonnier Books UK helping to coordinate the interview.


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